CHACHOENGSAO, Thailand -- The Royal Thai, United States, and Indonesian Armed Forces gathered during a pillar raising ceremony for an Exercise Cobra Gold 2018 construction project of a school building at Banthungsohongsa School in Chachoengsao, Kingdom of Thailand, Jan. 31, 2018.
Cobra Gold 18 is an annual exercise conducted in the Kingdom of Thailand and runs from Feb. 13-23 with up to 29 nations participating.
The main pillar of the building, blessed by Buddhist monks, distinguished guests, and villagers, was set into place. The ceremony is a tradition that honors the spirits residing in the area and is said to increase the longevity of the building.
"I feel honored and glad (we are receiving) this construction, which will benefit Thai students," said Banthungsohongsa School Principal Wanching Koolhakool, who is a native of Singburi, Thailand. "It's going to be a place for learning activities for the kindergarten grade, and will be able to support more than 40 students."
Working with their Royal Thai and U.S. counterparts, the Indonesian Army has a heavy hand at engineering civic assistance project site four.
"Our purpose here is to help the people of Thailand," said Capt. Ridwan Hananto, who is with the Indonesia Army engineers, and is a native of Karanganyar, Central Java, Indonesia. "Indonesia and the U.S. have joined together in this training for many years. This building we are building together will give the locals an advantage since it is a school building, and it will help them improve their education."
After the ceremony, the Royal Thai and U.S. forces halted construction temporarily to donate school supplies consisting of notebooks, reading materials, backpacks, and desks to the Banthungsohongsa School students.
U.S. Army Sgt. Rodney Manibusan, an engineer with 797th Engineering Company, 411th Engineering Battalion, said the supplies are meant to provide better learning opportunities for the children.
"What we're doing is investing in the future of the children of the local community," said Manibusan, who is a native of Dededo, Guam. "It's not about us; we're just paving the way for these kids."
While the school building was blessed, Royal Thai and U.S. service members also visited Ban Na Isan Village where numerous elephant stampedes have taken place. The villagers said the stampedes are a direct result of a drought in the area, and a lack of food causes the elephants to storm through the village and eat crops.
The village made headlines last year when an elephant stampede killed a local man who was carrying fruit from the forest back to his home.
"We have 312 families and around 1,000 people in our village," said Arporn Maimongkol, who is the sheriff of Sanam Chai Khet, the local district. "We try to stop them, but they keep adapting and finding new ways to get to our crops."
The Thai people have lived in harmony with elephants for thousands of years, and Maimongkhol said the villagers understand they need to protect the village and the elephants.
"If we can surround the village with fences and plant more food for the elephants, then it will be successful and balanced between humans and elephants so that we could live together," she said.
Maimongkol said the village has constructed a dam in an effort to keep the elephants away. The dam closes off their main access way, and during the rainy season the area fills up with water. But Maimongkol said the elephants are now trying to climb up onto the roads, which is damaging them.
"It is a continuous trial and error for us," she said. "We can't continue watching for elephants all the time, so the best step forward for us is elephant fences to prevent them from stampeding and keep them in the wild."
Maimongkol and Arun Sopaporn, Ban Na Isan Village chief, spoke with U.S. Army Maj. Robert Vandertuin, the head of combined joint civil military operations task force who is leading humanitarian civic assistance projects during this year's Cobra Gold, explaining they lack the budget in order to build the fences.
"For us to construct the dam and elephant ditches, we used a lot of our budget, and the elephants still destroyed it," Maimongkol explained. "The best way to stop the elephants now is to build elephant fences, then we'll be successful in taking care of the villagers."
Royal Thai and U.S. forces pitched in and donated several bags of rice and potatoes to help replace some of the village's damaged crops from the elephant stampedes.